Debbie’s Dying

This week guest author Charlene Jones takes us to the bedside of her dying friend. It’s a touching and intimate portrait of Debbie’s dying.


by Charlene Jones

Your beautiful daughter’s anguished blue eyes open wide as she says, “Thank you for coming. I don’t know what to do…how to help…She’s in there.”

In the bedroom your face emerges from the wall, cheekbones and chin jutting out. Your eyes careen vacantly past me, then peer at her.

“Did you get that box like I told you? Did you?”

She shrinks visibly under this harshness. Her pained eyes lock on mine, shoot a plea of confusion.

“Deb,” I say, “Deb, it’s…” You pull your face to mine, your eyes focus, and a grin lags at the corners of your mouth.

“It’s the morphine, Deb. It’s making you cranky. It’s the drug, Deb.”

“Oh, but that…did I tell you…she didn’t…” The creases between your brow ease, your finger freezes in mid-air, the baton of a timeless tempo.

“No, Deb, everything’s fine just as it is. It’s the morphine.” I smile and you melt, your lips leaning toward each other again, your daughter’s relief sighing out around us.

Five days, six nights. Or seven nights and six days, I sit. “This is meditation retreat,” sings across my brain as I first ease myself into the chair. It will be my spot as my senseless vigilance knits moments, bits of string, against the imminent tsunami.

I begin, “You remember we sat up that night, our feet barely touching ground from the plane after our latest summer trip. It was Norway, right? With the group, our group, meditators following our Teacher. So holy!

“So you and I swaggered all night, duty free scotch, cigarettes, jet-lagged and hysterical, talking men and drugs and parties and men, dragging jokes way past midnight.

You got to sleep in ‘til noon while I hunched off, ragged and hollow, to work.”

From the rest of the apartment I hear the noises of others. They gather, offering what they have. One contacts the Teacher somewhere in the middle of an ocean; one tallies all the incoming and outgoing events such as food that arrives, sundries needed. Someone connects with Grace Hospital, speaks with a Doctor who makes the necessary house call.

She sits on the couch in the living room. I relay your signs: no frost yet on the fingernails, toenails, some mottling blue on the lower extremities, the beginnings of cheyne stoking, (your breath has drained and held to its emptiness for up to eight seconds before a larger in breath) no food for two days…signs that signal the body’s readiness for shedding from its vital core.

The doctor seems satisfied, pleased even, with all of us, as she dictates, “I’ll sign the papers. Your friend is getting as good care here,” she pauses, looking at everyone dramatically, “or better than she would at the hospital.”

Does she speak to those others who on this last night take me by the shoulder, steer me toward a couch in a darkened part of the apartment? I dream strange, colorful, upsetting dreams, the compensatory nightmares rushing toxins through and out of my system, toxins built of sleeplessness, as this is the first time in seven nights. Or six.

“You know, Deb, I chose pink as it’s so soft and feminine. I hardly believe how your strong fingers wove heavy carpet into fashion: Jackets, Purses, Tops, and furniture! My feet are resting now against that small footstool, you know the one, you polished the wood until it has this burnished glow and then you carpeted the top. What your hands created and gave to us!” I see your face try to smile; your head almost nod. You still hear.

I paint your nails a seashell pink, thin, long fingers and palm, lying dry and light as winter leaves on mine when your hand fades into my father’s and I visit again his shockingly strong grasp when I rise to leave his bedside. Rise and fall back towards him.

“Oh, you want me to stay?” His palm and fingers ensnare mine; he rolls onto his back, opens blue-grey eyes very wide then refuses the next out breath. His chest remains high while the yellow light within those eyes streaks out across the room, giving over space for the Universe to merge into the emptiness where his eyes had been, a nanosecond gap, the Universe flowing through his emptying eyes for a split second, then nothing.

“I think I told you I saw him, my father, after that, standing in the room on the opposite side of his corpse, telling me he felt fine, healthy, stretching his ghost arms saying he had no more pain.”

The rest of the story relays itself inside my head as I sit beside you. He had promised his beloved grandson, who halted on a dash across the room, halted suddenly in front of Dad’s recliner.

“Grandpa, if there is life after death, you’ll let me know, right?”

And something smarter than the rest of me whispered silently, “Listen. Mark this.” Dad, struggling to slur less on his morphine-gilded tongue, “You bet I will,” and off again, each to his own future.

When Dad passed my son was at the movies with his stepfather, who reported, “At 8:35 the fire alarm rang and would not shut off. We all had to leave but I waited and asked the firemen who said they didn’t know what had caused it. We had to leave and not see the end of Back to the Future III.”

That was six years ago and now you lie here and I am silent beside you. Many others gather and soon will sit on the floor in front of your bed, to meditate and watch, every one of them a lifetime virgin to the advent of death. Their bowed heads will bob from their moving mouths saying mantras. They will look like winter starlings on a thin wire line.

One from our group comes in who had liked to party with you. I know she wants private time so I go to the kitchen. She calls to me.

“Debbie wants to know if it’s all right for her to have a beer.” Two unopened brown bottles lie on the white sheet beside you. Your face clearly projects my position as decision maker, but inside me, chaos — morphine mixed with alcohol?

My father in the next room, the head nurse on the phone as I say, “I think he needs more morphine, he’s still moaning, turning, restless, but I’m afraid to give him any more…”

“And if you do?” her soft voice. “If you do…?” Her voice provokes a truth all my ministrations have cloistered.

“Sure, Debbie, a beer…”

“After all,” your friend cracks, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

People arrive, gawk at your body passing, a shrine they yearn toward as much as long to avoid, staring, hoping to unpeel the mystery.

Your daughter touches my arm, “My mom wants everyone to stop asking her to let go. She says she’s trying as hard as she can. And…and, she wants…she asked me to tell these people to clear the room, once an hour for ten or fifteen minutes to give her a rest. But, these people are older…” her eyes flail about, “and I can’t tell them. Will you?”

This daughter shines, the jewel in your life. You birthed her on a ship rounding the Cape of Good Hope. The doctor from our group attended, a dull yellow light seeping through the cramped space, heads and shoulders straining at the small door of the tiny cabin, even as your body strained to allow another head through the other narrow door.

They begin to leave.

A woman, whose desire to be important trumps her helpfulness, arrives from some organization, bathes you and insists you want a massage.

In the hallway I hear you in my head saying, “Tell her to stop, Char,” and I am turning toward your bedroom when one of us comes to me, “Debbie looks like she’s in pain but this woman won’t stop. I’ve tried.”

That young woman, her hands and fingers kneading your bones, indeed does not listen when I point out twice in two minutes how your face grimaces. Then I tell her, “This is my friend. You will stop now and leave.”

We brush your hair and puff up your pillow because a man, one of the hunks we have all had crushes on at various times, has arrived.

“He’s coming up now, Deb, to see you,” I say. Your arm wavers uncertainly in the air, lands heavily on the hair around your face and with a gesture of womanhood at least a million years and a billion women proven, your hand pats your hair down before you weakly arrange yourself on the bed.

He takes a seat on my chair at your side. I sit on the wooden parquet floor.

“Would you like me to leave?”

“No, I…” he hesitates then, this therapist, this PhD in Psychology, perceived leader among our members, “No, I don’t know what to say to her.”

“She’s right here,” I point to where you lie, listening, “and you can talk, naturally, maybe tell her about your son…”

“Well, Jason’s developmental…”

Huge syllables flap out of his mouth, stumble about the room, land and disappear haphazardly.

“May I…may I…”

He stops, blinks, looks at me.

“May I suggest using simple, every day language?”

You danced with Angela, Deb, you remember? The other day you needed to use the commode handily placed here next to my chair, but as you tried and failed at organizing your limbs towards it while staying upright, Ang laced her arms around your waist. You two waltzed the last quarter turn, stopping to mock jive, your feet planted, arms and legs splaying, waists bowing, the three of us laughing until tears flowed.

She called you “Prairie Flower” at the wake, lifting her glass and making the best toast to you. One hundred or more people showed up to someone’s house in the West end and where all the booze and food came from I’ll never know.

But the music was great: Rolling Stones, Down Child Blues Band, Van Morrison and more, in honor of how much you had loved to dance. I danced with the bearded man who had loved you, who fell in love with you at Grossman’s Tavern, dancing. He was distraught, Deb, even though you had already left him.

He was distraught and asked me on the porch why, why did I think you had developed cancer and I told him a bunch of sentences because I am good at that and good at knowing how people often just want, especially when they are in grief, to hear words, they just want words even if those words don’t make much sense.

“It’s ME, up there on that tv,” you almost scream. “It wouldn’t be so funny to you if it was you up there…” Your words slam into each other, your arm reaches for an invisible channel changer, a knob on the old fashioned set only you can see, hallucinations part morphine, part contents of your inner world emptying as you enter already the Bardo or in-between world.

“Turn it,” Angela suggests, “just change the station.”

“Can I do that?” Your face opens in surprise. “I didn’t think I was allowed to do that…” Large blue eyes, made bigger against the skeletal outline of your cheekbones, gaze out and around at an imaginary audience.

“Sure, just turn the station.”

“Charlene,” someone shakes my shoulder, “Charlene, can you come quickly? It’s Debbie.” I’ve had seven hours sleep in seven nights or six nights and this the sixth or seventh day I am instantly awake and by your side and in the chair that has held me for so long.

“We’ve been trying to brush her teeth but she keeps biting the toothbrush,” the voice at my ear.

I take the toothbrush up, dip it into the glass of water, put it to your lips, which clench down as you suck, strongly.

“She’s thirsty. We need an eyedropper.”

One appears and relief drips into your mouth until you whisper, “Thank you, enough.”

Four or five of us cling to the edges of your bed, now a boat we know nears a shore only you will attain.

I hold your hand. You ask about your beautiful daughter who is with her best friends at Angela’s home. Your face relaxes.

“Tired, Char, so tired.”

“Not long now, Deb. You’re really close. Here,” I spoon a couple of tablespoons of morphine, a regular dose, into your mouth.

“It hurts, Char, I’m so tired, I can’t take it, can’t do this much longer.”

I lean over, whispering in your ear, “It’s all over now, Deb. I just gave you a huge whack of morphine.”

Your mouth almost smiles as your last breath cycles up and stops. It is noon April 1st 1996 and you have taught us so much.

In a day or two someone will read from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, someone else from Maya Angelou and Deb, I won’t be dressed properly. I’ll be in some plain white shirt and a black skirt, not the flowered, flowing skirt and loose peasant blouse, as I would have wanted to properly send you off in. I will stand in front of more than two hundred and fifty people reading the eulogy I will write for you about rainbows, their sudden comings and goings, their gift while with us. I will be told I performed it very well.

About the author:

C_JonesCharlene Jones’ publications include:

Medicine Buddha/Medicine Mind an easy to read exploration of the seam between Visualization Meditation and Neuroscience

The Stain, a novel about Reincarnation, Karma and the Release from Suffering

 Bliss Pig a book of poetry co-authored with Linda Stitt

She teaches Meditation at Stouffville Yoga Life; creates, produces and edits a radio show called Off the Top at; and practices helping clients through her Spiritual Guidance practice.

Ms. Jones currently puts time into her memoir, called My Impossible Life, due out early 2017.



  1. “Then I tell her, “This is my friend. You will stop now and leave.”” How lucky Debbie was to have such a strong advocate in her last days. Love the way this piece moves between serving those who are dying and experiencing the sadness of losing them.

  2. Thank you Sue Reynolds for taking time and making comments. As always I value your insight and caring. Debbie’s passing offered me such a profound experience. Her generosity…

  3. So much stays with me. The beautiful transition of “when your hand fades into my father’s”: how one tsunami melds into another. When Debbie touches her hair in a “…gesture of womanhood at least a million years and a billion women proven.” How death intimidates even the pundits. How a simple thing like thirst sometimes needs an interpreter. The practicality and mystery of death and how this narrator is able to hold both within her. What a moving, instructive piece.

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